Peterson Zah and Manley A. Begay, Jr.: Strategic Thinking and Planning: Navajo Nation Permanent Trust Fund (Q&A)

Native Nations Institute

Manley Begay and Peterson Zah field questions from the audience concerning the Navajo Nation Permanent Trust Fund and how they and others worked to mobilize and sustain the citizen support necessary to keep the fund intact and allow it to grow.

Native Nations
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Zah, Peterson and Manley A. Begay, Jr. "Strategic Thinking and Planning: Navajo Nation Permanent Trust Fund (Q&A)." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2008.

Audience member:

"We are currently facing a recession here in the United States of America. I guess number one, how safe is our investment from a possible crash in the market? And number two is how will the recession affect the trust fund? Did you guys do any research on that?"

Peterson Zah:

"One of the things that the Navajo Nation has to weigh right now is, because of the economic condition nationwide, I believe they have to pass a legislation that would allow the money managers -- if it should completely go down, before that happens, when it's beginning to go down -- they should probably withdraw that money and reinvest some of those monies into other accounts where it can maintain the status quo or even make more money. They haven't really decided that yet.

There's been a lot of discussion with the budget and finance committee, the money managers, and other finance people within the administration to try to come up with something so that they don't have to take a big hit on what is happening at the national level. So it's something that I think the work group has to come back together and really take a hard look at that to insure that the money is safe and that it will not completely hit the bottom.

When you have monies like this in trust, it's like a roller coaster. It's a roller coaster. And I guess the smart ones withdraw some of those monies when it's at its height. And I think Navajo Nation has to learn how to play that game. And definitely the budget and finance committee is addressing those issues right now."

Audience member:

"With your experience in this process, what would you suggest to a smaller tribe that is interested in this but doesn't have that initial large amount of income, like in the court case, to get a fund like this started?"

Manley Begay:

"So the question is, for a smaller tribe that might have less of a windfall, what we would suggest to that particular tribe? My suggestion is -- in the same vein as what we've been taught by President Zah -- is to save. There really has to be some mechanism by which to save that amount of money, because we don't really know what the future holds. But one of the primary responsibilities of leaders is really to think strategically, to think way ahead of everybody else.

In the Navajo way we say, naat'aanii. The naat'aanii, those are leaders. That particular person is responsible to plan strategically for the long haul, to plan for those that are yet unborn. In the Iroquois Confederacy philosophy they're talking about seven generations. So sometimes, we sort of just think about the here and now -- the here and now is really, goes fast. I mean, look at Curt Massey and myself. We're already at that age where we can't play basketball like we used to even though we might think we can. So time flies very, very quickly. And so for leaders, the primary responsibility is to figure out what's our vision? What are our priorities and concerns? And then make a commitment to the long run.

And also to leave a legacy; my brother here has left a legacy for the Navajo Nation. He'll always be remembered as that leader that thought way ahead. And to this day, we are reaping the rewards of that. And the generations to come will also reap the rewards as well. So the primary responsibility is to answer the question, 'What legacy are you going to leave for your people? How are you going to be remembered a hundred years from now? What will people say about you? How will they remember you?' I think that that is a crucial, critical question for all leaders."

Audience member:

"I wanted to know how did you educate your community members and how did you educate your council members? I know you say you have 88 members, that's a large legislative branch. And how did you get the majority to set up this accounting? How is it educated within the communities, districts or what not?"

Manley Begay:

"So the question is how did you educate the people? At Navajo we're, as I was saying earlier, Pete Zah's like E.F. Hutton. However, people out there in Navajo country, they want to know what's going on. They're also thinking about the future as well and they're interested in the future of the Navajo Nation. And so it was really actually very easy to gather a group of people and begin a discussion. And there are some amazing, intelligent individuals out there. At the same time, also with a lot of humor. So they don't take things too seriously, but at the same time they're thinking very hard about the future of the Nation and less about themselves. This person that made the statement about the corn, this is a guy that was wearing a T-shirt and Levi's jeans and worn out shoes. And he said, "˜Don't worry about me.' He says, "˜I can take care of myself. I get by.' So he wasn't thinking about himself, he wasn't being selfish. He was thinking about everybody else -- his relatives, his grandkids, his children and all of his relatives. I think that that was, there was this spirit about these public hearings that was unbelievable."

Peterson Zah:

"Let me add a bit to that. If you look at the Navajo Nation and its demographics, we have something like 82,000 children that are of school age. We have something like 144 schools on the Navajo Nation; 50 high schools on the Navajo Nation. And in terms of educating those kids, I take the time each year to do what we call a Navajo tour. We just completed one two weeks ago, where I go across the reservation with ten or a dozen Navajo college students from ASU [Arizona State University] -- students that are getting their law degree, engineering, nurses and some of those students. This year we took a trip with ten of them during the spring break. This is when all the other college kids are on their spring break. We choose those students and we go across the Navajo Nation with them. And our job there, while we're doing that, is to recruit other Navajo students to come to ASU. While we are doing that, I make sure that I end up in two or three of these classes at these high schools where there are seniors and juniors. And we talk to them about tribal government and the establishment of the Permanent Fund -- how it is their money and that they should have a role in the say so as to how these monies are spent. So we do that. We still have on schedule, within the next two or three weeks, another ten high schools that we will be going to. So we take that trip each year. So that's one way.

The other way is that with the chapter leaders they usually have an agency council. We have some chapter officers right here. Agency council meetings, they usually have those six times a year where all the leaders from those different agencies come together. We go over on occasion to make those presentations just to keep the local leaders informed as to what's happening so that they have some idea as to the current events surrounding the Navajo Nation trust fund. And so we do that.

And then what I usually do personally is I get on the radio. They have KTNN radio station, Navajo Nation-wide. You can blab away in Navajo about some of these activities regarding their trust fund, just to keep the Navajo people, the general public informed as to what has happened. I love doing that. Now, let me give you the last one, which is hard.

I do that because I really believe in it. I don't get paid for what I do. It's just work that needs to be done. So because of that, people know it. People know it. I don't have any conflict. If you don't work for any of the institutions on the Navajo, you can say whatever you want to say -- whether a council delegate is there or not, or President [Joe] Shirley is there or not, I don't really care -- but it needs to be said, it needs to be done and because I don't work for anybody. You're free -- really, really free -- to express those views. To me, that gives you more integrity. That's where the power is. But once you start demanding some kind of income, compensation for what you do, then you've shot all of what you're trying to do to pieces. And that's why I do what I do.

Let me give you another good example. In gaming, in the state of Arizona we have a gaming compact all these Indian tribes signs with the state of Arizona. And they have on the Navajo Nation X amount of machines dedicated to the Navajo Nation, but Navajo Nation is not in gaming yet. But the law says that if the Navajo Nation wants, it can use its designated number of the machines and lease it out or rent it out or sell it to the other Indian tribes. And so all these tribes, this tribe, Gila River, Fort McDowell, and six or seven other tribes want Navajo's machines. But Navajo politicians weren't ready to make any movements. They were afraid because once they touch this whole idea of pooling those machines to give it to the other tribes for rental -- even though it's for money -- they were afraid to face the people about what they did because they know the Navajo people would say, "˜We were ready to open a casino and you sold all of our machines to somebody else.' Well, what I do in those cases is I put all the tribes together -- the leader that you heard today, four or five of those tribal people -- and say, "˜Okay, what do you guys really, really want? The Navajo has those excess machines.' And then I go back to Navajo and I tell the president, the speaker of the Navajo Nation, and council and I said, "˜This is what these tribes want.' So you put them all together and they negotiate and they come to some kind of an agreement. You don't get paid for what you do. You don't get paid for what you do, but it's something that needs to be done that other people, the politicians who are paid to do that, they don't want to do because it's a hot potato. So when you begin to do something like that, it gives you a lot of credibility, a lot of credibility. And I think more and more of our tribal leaders need to do that. You don't wait to see if anybody's going to compensate you for what you do, but there's just a lot of work that needs to be done.

I always tell the president at ASU, I says, "˜President, I know that ASU sometimes goes through a budget crunch. And I just want to let you know that if you feel like that I'm occupying a space here, you can just kindly tell me what you think. Because I'm going to end up doing what needs to be done anyway, which is to recruit more Navajo students. I always work for ASU. I don't have to do it from that office. I can do it from Phoenix or from Window Rock. I'll just keep on doing the same thing because that is the way it is meant to be. So I don't need to work here and I don't really need to work for anybody.' And I think when people begin to do more of that, we all end up winning -- this tribe, all the other tribes, the Navajo people, and the Navajo students. Your question was how do we educate people? Well, you educate them that way and people will listen. He was, Manley was saying that people listen. Well, people listen because they know that there's no conflict. They know that what you say really has a lot of credence and they know that what you're saying is the truth because nobody is paying you to say those things."


"Anymore questions? Well, in that case..."

Manley Begay:

"Just one second. Let me just conclude by saying that strategic vision is really so critical. It might sound like sort of pipe dreams, but it really has a concrete purpose and that purpose is really, it gives you a basis on which to make decisions. It gives you a basis on which to consider choices. If you don't have a set of priorities and concerns laid out...remember the story I told earlier about the Cherokee Nation and that their number-one priority is language retention, their number one concern is language retention. So you know what? They put all their money into that. So when somebody comes to your office and says, "˜Let's spend the money over here.' You can say to them, "˜No, we can't do that because you told us that this was our number-one priority, number-two priority, number-three priority. This is our number-one concern, number-two concern, number-three concern and that's where our money is going.' It takes the burden off of you. You have a way to go, you have a function, you have a road that's laid out. So strategic visioning, setting priorities of concern has a real concrete purpose. And that's what this session is about here. So with that, thank you. [Thank you, my older brother]. I'm really happy that I spent time with him. We call each other almost every other week, joking, laughing, but underneath that is some real main serious reasons to think about the future of Indian people. And I'm just so happy that we have leaders like Mr. Zah. I'm so happy that he came into this world. And as a result the world is a better place, for me and for everybody else. So with that I just wanted to also thank him. [Again, thank you, my older brother]." 

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Former Navajo Chairman and President Peterson Zah and NNI Faculty Chair Manley A. Begay, Jr. discuss the role of strategic vision and planning in the establishment and cultivation of the Navajo Navajo Permanent Trust Fund, and stress the need for Native nations to forge a long-term vision for their…